Part II: Machu Picchu: Realizations from New Years Day 2013

Okay, let me back up this story a lil bit.

To give a little context to our trek: the Inca Trail – or “el Camino Inka” – was a religious and ceremonial pilgrimage conducted by the Inca to honor the land and the mountains on the way to Machu Picchu. Along the trail, they built different fortresses or sites along the way for various purposes, that also allowed them to send fire signals (in a domino effect) from one site to another to sound an alarm during invasions or external threats.

Nuria and Natalia by one of the Incan sites on Day 3

Nuria and Natalia by one of the Incan sites on Day 3

So while our journey was historically a very spiritual one, I have to admit looking back that as visitors and tourists to the region, we could have done more (I’ll get onto that point much later).

* * * * *

Anyway, back to Day 3: The 10 Mile Hike to the Gates

Our mist-covered valley camp for night 2

Our mist-covered valley camp for night 2

Even as groggy as I was on the morning of the third day, I realized that I did feel HELLLLAA better. My flu-like symptoms (probably altitude sickness) had subsided quite a bit, and even though I was tired and felt weak, it was able to hike. I must say that someone, some god, or some spirit out there must have taken pity on me, because I have no idea how my health improved so quickly. Or maybe it was the drug cocktails I was taking the day before.

It was probably both.

At 6 am we were off again, starting our trip with two miles of steep rocky steps (it actually ended up not being too bad) where we stopped halfway at one of the Incan sites to learn about the history and the purpose from Victor.

More stair hiking at the beginning of Day 3

More stair hiking at the beginning of Day 3

The hardest part about Day 3 is that for most of the hike, you’re going down extremely steep stone stairs. While it is downhill travel, it’s a killer for anyone with bad knees or ankles (like myself), plus the steps are often wet from stream runoff. Tread carefully.

After lunch, we finally had a chance to meet all of the porters that had the incredibly hard task of carrying the group’s gear (camping and cooking equipment) on their back for the entire trip. In all we had about eleven men that helped us, from a young 22 year old guy to a 54 year old man. We also had to introduce ourselves and say our name, where we were from, our age, and whether or not we were single (!)

Dark group photo

Dark group photo

After lunch, we continued on for another five miles to our final camp. It was lush and green, scenic but still rainy, and warm at different times along the trail.

After dinner that night, we said goodbye to the porters, and gave them thanks for all their help. Since we had to get up at 3:30 am the next day, we all did our best to get rest before the 4 mile hike the next day.

Day 4: A Lesson in Life, Death, and Spirituality

Day 4 was all about waking up and packing up quickly at 3:30 am, eating breakfast, and standing in line at the gates to start the hike to Machu Picchu, the culmination of our trip.

The smallest orchids in the world, on route to Machu Picchu, day 4

The smallest orchids in the world, on route to Machu Picchu, day 4

As the clock hit 5:30 am, the gates opened and we were all up and hiking. There were a few other groups in front of ours and a few groups behind us, but as we’ve been the slow group for the past few days, some of us straggled behind while everyone else barreled ahead. I stayed behind to hang out with Jennifer, who was limping so badly that we weren’t sure how she was going to hike for 4 miles. Jessica and I tried to brace her knee while I gave her 600 mg of ibuprofen for the extreme pain that she was in. She started to feel a bit better after that.

Me and Jen

Me and Jen

As we slowly hiked up the trail – taking pictures and limping along the way – we heard someone tell us:

“Someone fell off the trail, be careful as you hike! Stay close to the mountain and stay away from the edge!”

I thought that they might have been scaring us, but I was unfortunately incredibly wrong.

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After 10 minutes of hiking, we came across a small group of about 7 hikers, American and European tourists, who were broken down in tears. My heart sank. I looked to my right and saw the curve of the trail that the girl must have slipped off of as she ran to catch up with the rest of her group. Everyone was crying. WE were crying. It was utterly and completely heartbreaking.

For the next few hours, it was absolute craziness.  All the guides in the area were asked to step in and help with the rescue.  If they could get ahold of her insurance, they might have been able to send help – and more sophisticated help – at a much faster rate. Farther ahead at the Sun Gates, members of our group scrambled to get cell phone service to call the US Embassy in Peru, call the girl’s life insurance coverage, call the local police.

And then we couldn’t do any more. We hiked down slowly and carefully towards Machu Pichhu, with the memories of the morning’s events heavy on our minds. I had a hard time appreciating the trip at that moment, but we all did our best to keep our energies high and make it successfully to the temple.

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When the fog lifted and we finally saw the vast stone buildings of Machu Picchu for the first time, it was an incredibly uplifting sight. We took tons of photos, celebrated a little bit, and made some time to be appreciative of our journey.

The first glimpse

The first glimpse

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur for me. While we had began our day at 3:30 am, by the time we reached Machu Picchu, it was already about 11:30 am. For most of the day, we sat passively and listened to Victor’s talk about Machu Picchu and Incan history – it was a bit hard given our tumultuous morning, coupled with the fact that we hadn’t had anything to eat since about 4 am that day.

Up since 4 am, and tired

Up since 4 am, and tired

I could talk about Machu Picchu – its history, its many purposes, the culture and spirituality behind it, and how we’ve come to learn about its history (mostly through European travelers, unfortunately) but that can be googled. What I walked away with that day was much more than that.

* * * * *

We arrived at Machu Picchu on New Years Day, 2013. I usually do a lot of personal reflection and goals setting at the beginning of every year. As I stood looking out towards the mountains, one thought dominated my conscience:

We are outsiders.

Sorry. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t visit Machu Picchu. The trip was amazing and had incredible highlights, don’t get me wrong. Penny was an amazing trip organizer. I loved our guides, and I really liked and appreciated the trekking company that we worked with that’s owned by a local Peruvian woman.The people that I was with for the past 4 days were awesome, and I had a great time learning about the history of the trail, hiking through gorgeous valleys and mountains, and getting to know everyone in our group.

We’re just not from that land. You can tell by the way us tourists get sick and hurt on that trail. I talked to a friend back in the states after the trek, who helped me make sense of everything. He mentioned that before he enters any place that’s scared or historical, he makes sure to do a ceremony beforehand out of respect for the site and those that once lived there, to ask for permission. And it was true – while we learned a great deal about the history and Incan culture, the one thing that could have been stronger was the spiritual aspect of our trip. I felt it from the beginning, but was too afraid (and felt too rushed) to say anything.

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I did a small prayer before we left Machu Picchu that day, to thank the mountains and the spirits that helped me recover and stay strong on this journey. I also prayed for the girl who fell, and for her family and her boyfriend, wishing them strength and healing. And finally, I gave thanks for the fact that everyone in our group stayed healthy enough to make it to the end of our trip.

At the end of the day we were in Aguas Calientes, resting from our trip, exhausted and extremely dirty. Four days of backpacking through some beautiful yet tough terrain, under some amazing as well as some unfortunate circumstances. We celebrated our trip accomplishments, drank, and ate dinner one last time as an entire group. And of course, I did a few tarot card readings.

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I’m going to miss the energy of this Machu Picchu trekking group – the last four days of getting to know people, the laughter, and all the good times we had together. I take their memories and their stories with me as I continue on my way through Peru, to Bolivia…and hopefully Argentina. We shall see what happens.

* * * * *

New Years Day, 2013. Despite the hardships and the endings that we  faced on this trek, I’ve been reminded once again about the things that really matter. While I look back on my life at home and see some frustrations…I also realize that I’m very fortunate to have what I have, and am incredibly thankful about the fact that I have made it this far. It reminds me to be appreciative, to have gratitude, to put my life and my on-going or daily stresses into perspective. If things don’t happen the way we’d like them to, they’re rarely life or death situations. I remind myself that sometimes we just need to slow down, and do our best. That’s all I could ever ask for.

Cheers to the journey.

For more information on the Inca Trail: http://www.incatrail-peru.com/inka-trail/en/history-of-the-qhapaq-nan.php 

For more information on Machu Picchu: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/machu-picchu-mystery/ (yes, sorry it’s national geographic, my internet is too slow to allow me to look up other sites written by Peruvians)

and: http://www.livescience.com/22869-machu-picchu.html

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